Thursday • December 8, 2005
Derrick A Paulo
National Reserves. HDB (Housing Development Board). GIC (Government of Singapore Investment Corporation). CPF (Central Provident Fund). Be transparent now.
"Singaporeans spend on HDB; whole earnings on CPF; life savings — but cannot withdraw when they need. Accountability."
Those were words that four protesters displayed on their T-shirts and placards as they stood in a row for almost an hour outside the CPF building in August.
If that had been all, they might have just succeeded in asking the High Court to declare that the authorities acted unlawfully and unconstitutionally in breaking up the protest. But there was another word listed by the protesters: NKF (National Kidney Foundation). In that single abbreviation, Justice V K Rajah found reason enough to dismiss with costs the legal action initiated by Singapore Democratic Party central executive committee member Chee Siok Chin and another two of the protesters.
The judge released yesterday his 67-page judgment, in which he described their complaint as "legally unsustainable and wholly misconceived" as well as "frivolous, vexatious and/or an abuse of proceedings".
The thrust of the protesters' case, argued by lawyer M Ravi, is that the Constitutional right of freedom of speech, assembly and association (Article 14) allows fewer than five persons to protest peacefully.
Justice Rajah's decision, however, hinges on the sections in the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act that deal with causing harassment, alarm or distress. Under this law, anyone who uses abusive or insulting words with the intent to harass can be found guilty of an offence.
This is where the three letters N-K-F become so important.
According to the judge, by linking the CPF Board and other entities with the NKF — "the most striking feature of the protest" — the protesters had used insulting and abusive words against "persons responsible for the finances of those bodies".
He called their actions "tantamount to an insinuation of mismanagement and financial impropriety".
Recalling the context at the time of the protest, he said: "The governance and finances of the NKF were … caught in a swirl of negative and adverse publicity. Information and material that entered the public domain … became the source of widespread and grave public disquiet.
"A toxic brew of inexplicable accounting practices, corporate unaccountability, lack of financial disclosure and questionable management practices created an atmosphere suggesting financial impropriety."
It would be "reasonable" for police to find the words used insulting or abusive, providing ample grounds to ask the protesters to leave in lieu of being arrested.
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